Genes good form for your Melbourne Cup tip

3 November 2015

Genetic analysis into complex traits could improve not only performance but also health and welfare, according to new research.

Australian world-champion rachorse Black Caviar gave birth to a filly, "Little Cav", in September 2014 – the most anticipated foal in Australian thoroughbred racing history. If she is sold next year, she is expected to become one of the highest priced female yearlings ever.

Now, new research that considered a range of traits including career length and susceptibility to diseases, as well as horse-racing performance, reveals the extent to which thoroughbred offspring resemble their parents.

If a foal has race-winning parents it is more likely to have a champion career, research into complex genetic traits shows, says Dr Natasha Hamilton a senior lecturer from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Dr Hamilton said although studies had shown genetics accounts for about a third of a horse's performance, DNA analysis could do much more than just identify odds on winning a race.

"We are learning more about the influence of genes not only underlying racing performance and disease but also about health-related traits such as risk of fracture," she said.

This latest research has focused on the genetics of durability—or how sound a horse is — including factors such as career length and number of races. The work, supported by Racing Australia, has involved analysis of racing and pedigree records spanning 10 years from 164,000 Australian racehorses.

"We have established that these durability traits have a low but significant heritability, indicating that horses' racing careers could be improved through selective breeding," Dr Hamilton said.

"This knowledge could be applied in the future to improve the overall health, soundness and therefore welfare of the racehorse population.

"On Melbourne Cup Day, one horse will achieve the ultimate prize in Australian racing. There are many factors that will need fall into place for this to happen, including genetics, training, the ride, feeding and even a little dose of luck.

"We are now understanding more and more about the genetics that make a good racehorse, and this includes much more than just raw ability. Genetics also directly influences susceptibility to certain health traits and even career longevity, meaning that the winner will be tough and sound enough to cope with racing and training."

Why animals have become a social issue

To mark Melbourne Cup Day, the University’s Human and Animal Research Network (HARN) has invited the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor James Serpell to discuss the resurgence of interest in animal welfare and rights in developed countries.

HARN convener Dr Fiona Probyn-Rapsey said there was a growing concern internationally and in Australia about the welfare of animals used in competitive racing.

"The Melbourne Cup offers an opportunity to facilitate public discussion on issues of horse welfare and the potential for industry reform," Dr Probyn-Rapsey said.

The free event will feature the Head of the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences Professor Phil McManus and Dr Anne Fawcett from the Faculty of Veterinary Science in conversation with Professor Serpell.

Find out more and register for the event.